India has meted out punishment to Nepal and Nepali people in the form of blockade/embargo (tagged “unofficial”) on the eve of series of important festivals of Dashain, Tihar and Chhath in support of Madhesi parties’ demand: electoral constituency based on population without regard to geography, absolute proportional representation, no restriction on naturalized citizens ascending to high posts, demarcation of boundaries as they wished, 10 yearly delineation of electoral constituency (instead of 20 years), etc.
The blockade has resulted in overwhelming adverse impact on the economy that was tottering in the wake of devastation caused by the great earthquake of 25th April and number of aftershocks. Life of common people became paralyzed and put out of gear; more so in Tarai than in hills. Industrial production has come to a grinding halt for lack of fuel and raw materials; subsistence level factory workers suffering the most. The impact was like a double-edged sword, not sparing Indian business community dependent on business with Nepal.
Single state in southern plains
The agitating parties’ main demand is creation of single province based on identity of Madhesi people comprising 22 districts in Southern plains bordering India. Unfortunately for the agitating parties, no single coherent and homogenous ethnic, cultural, linguistic, religious and casteist (ethnocentric) community of Madhesi exists anywhere in Nepal, lest in Tarai, which occupies 17% of total area of Nepal inhabited by 51% of national population of which only 22% are deemed to be Madhesi; a conglomerate of Maithili, Rajbangsi, Bhojpuri, Awadhi, Tharu, Santhal, etc. Besides most of 22% do not favour province for Tarai separated from hills.
This demand stems for concept of creating provinces on the basis of identities of various communities (ethnocentric federalism) advocated by Maoists during 10-year long armed insurgency. As there are over 100 ethnocentric communities in a small country like Nepal, she could end up with over 100 provinces, if provinces are created on the basis identities; an unfeasible and untenable proposition. It will not bode well for nascent federalism as it could result in unravelling of national identity and fostering of centrifugal tendencies.
Draft constitution had provision for 6 provinces; the constitution that was finally promulgated after an amendment increased it to 7, including province number 2 comprising Saptari, Siraha, Dhanusha, Mahottari, Sarlahi, Rautahat, Bara and Parsa districts. Failing to ensure single province in Tarai, Madhesi parties are reconciled to the idea of more than one province, but are insisting on inclusion of Sunsari, Morang and Jhapa districts in this province (Koshi floodplain) in province # 2. This demand of theirs is obviously centred on exercising control over Koshi River.
Inhabitants of these 3 districts, however, don’t wish to be included in province # 2; the farce is the endeavour to have these included in province # 2 by force: against “federal” government (although, government in Kathmandu is not a federal government yet, since federalism has not been implemented) and against the wishes of people of concerned districts. Conversely, there is no clamour in these districts to be included in province # 2; rather it is highly likely that there would be strong protest/agitation if these districts were merged forcefully with province # 2.
Vested interest in Nepal’s water resources
Coincidence of agitation by Madhesi parties and Indian blockade is strange. Delivering speeches in Bihar recently during election campaign, Indian premier Narendra Modi promised voters electricity from Nepal. Although water from rivers of Nepal do flow through India, it is not possible to generate hydropower in the plains. Similarly, although Ganga basin is Indian food granary, year-round cultivation of land is not possible for lack of irrigation during 8 months of dry season: limiting food-crop production required to meet burgeoning population growth. In this backdrop, pundits of federalism/water resource have rightly opined that India has vested interest in Nepal’s water resources and expects to be able to keep single Tarai based province under her influence and control Nepal’s rivers. Therefore, it is important from Indian perspective to create this particular province; hence, the clamour of Madhesi parties with covert Indian support. [However, the report about Indian support for secession of Tarai from rest of Nepal deserves to be ignored.]
What seems to have been lost sight of is the fact that control over rivers of Nepal, specifically Koshi River by bringing Koshi flood plain under province # 2, will result in having to continue to deal with rainy season flood and inundation—with resultant involuntary displacement—and drought or similar situation rest of the year. The premise of control over Koshi water in this manner, for example, is apparently based on ignorance of hydrological cycle.
Beneficial control over water
Physically and from the perspective of management of water, control over Nepal’s rivers can be exercised by building a string of high dam storage projects in mid-hills (for example Sapta Koshi High Dam on Koshi River near Barahakshetra), resulting in creation of a number of reservoirs from Mechi through Mahakali, with appurtenant benefit of flood control and lean season augmented flow (exemplified by present Koshi barrage from which Indian state of Bihar benefits from both flood control and irrigation in miniscule quantum during wet season only). Such reservoirs can control rainy season flood in downstream areas of Nepal and UP, Bihar and Bengal in India and even in Bangladesh. Further, these can “produce” lean season augmented flow, which would avail valuable/precious fresh water during dry season both in Nepal and northern India and Bangladesh; benefitting from temporal/seasonal transfer of water for drinking and sanitation, irrigation, fisheries and animal husbandry, navigation, etc.
A win-win scenario as such for both Nepal and India cannot be achieved by creating a separate province in Tarai, where it is almost impossible to build storage projects. Theoretically, however, it is possible in Tarai too but the cost, in terms of money, land and most importantly displacement, would be exorbitantly high compared to meagre benefit that would accrue.
Even within Nepal, after implementation of federalism it would be difficult to build reservoir projects due to conflict potential between upstream and downstream riparian provinces. Why would upstream province agree to suffer from negative externalities of inundation and involuntary displacement in order to have downstream province benefit from positive externalities of flood control and lean season augmented flow? Hence, it is shortsighted to dream of controlling, for example Koshi river water, by controlling province number 2.
Constitutional provision re water resources
In accordance with Schedule 5 of the new Constitution, treaties with foreign governments fall under federal government, which implies that if a treaty needs to be executed to tame rivers in Nepal, it is beyond the jurisdiction of any provincial government. Similarly, multipurpose projects (Sapta Koshi High Dam is an example) too are under the purview of federal government. Therefore, nothing will be achieved by being able to control province # 2.
A win-win scenario can be achieved by building high dam projects in Nepal not only to generate high value peak energy but also to produce water in dry season. But this scenario would be precluded if a separate province in southern plain is created where no multipurpose project could be built for temporal/seasonal transfer of water and generation of high value clean/renewable energy. Furthermore, antagonizing people of Nepal by imposing blockade also will not help achieve the win-win scenario.
Conversely, if India continues to be haughty and endeavours to “control” Nepal’s rivers covertly, she will end up in a no-win scenario. Because Nepal can go ahead with building storage projects tailored to meet her own need of lean season augmented flow with India continuing to suffer from the vagaries of flood-drought syndrome. For example, instead of building 269-meter high dam generating 3,300 MW of power on Koshi River, Nepal can build dam with lower height to generate only about 600 MW. It will result in reduced negative externalities for Nepal (lesser quantum of inundation and displacement), but generate lean season augmented flow adequate to cater for Nepal’s own requirement. If something as unfortunate is to take place, India will be deprived from benefits of flood control and lean season augmented flow for several generations to come, besides losing an age-old friend who helped India through thick and thin.
This is a win-lose scenario (Nepal benefitting but India deprived) and this is not the denouement that people of Nepal, irrespective of whether living in Tarai or hills, wish for. People in Nepal are looking forward to harnessing Nepal’s water resources in the ways that would benefit both the neighbours, even Bangladesh in the downstream.
Published in People’s Review of November 6, 2015